WEST PALM BEACH — Gov. Ron DeSantis said Wednesday that he will propose new legislation in 2022 to "further strengthen" Florida's election integrity.
The announcement came from the same city, West Palm Beach, where almost six months ago to the day he signed into law numerous election rules changes that advocates say will make Florida elections more secure but which critics charge are really aimed at giving Republicans an edge in next year's midterm elections.
And that announcement came after DeSantis on Feb. 19 announced, again in West Palm Beach, a few miles from former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago mansion, that the Florida vote in 2020 was the "most successful" in state history.
The governor is up for re-election in 2022 and has been mentioned as a potential presidential candidate in 2024, likely depending on whether Trump, who helped DeSantis secure the governorship, decides to run.
On Wednesday, addressing about 200 people at the Hilton Palm Beach Airport Hotel, DeSantis talked about what he wants to do to "make Florida the number one state for elections," including:
Create a state office to investigate and prosecute election crimes such as ballot harvesting — a term for when a third-party delivers an absentee ballot on behalf of a voter.
Make ballot harvesting a third-degree felony.
Impose time frames for supervisors of elections to “clean voting rolls” of ineligible voters so that someone who died three years ago, for example, does not receive a ballot, he said.
Prohibit what his office called "unsecure, haphazard" voting drop box locations in Florida.
He said ballot drop boxes are put in “all kinds of crazy locations," and that legislators plan to look at further restricting or eliminating drop boxes altogether.
“I don’t think we should have drop boxes, to be honest with you,” he said, adding that if they are allowed, the number and location should be limited, they should close by 7 p.m., and they should be monitored by video surveillance and a live security guard.
The number of drop boxes in Palm Beach County, which is geographically the largest county in the nation east of the Mississippi River, has already been reduced to four, because of legislation passed in May.
U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, reacted to DeSantis' proposals.
“It’s crazy to me that our Governor is so set on scoring political points, that he is willing to manufacture a crisis about voter fraud that simply doesn’t exist,” said Frankel in a statement. “Voting is a cornerstone of our democracy, and it is our job as elected officials to protect it. That means ensuring that every eligible voter can make their voice heard, not making it harder for people to access the ballot box.”
Brad Ashwell, the Florida state director of All Voting is Local, a national organization that focuses on voting rights, said in an email: “This is a gross misuse of public resources that will only fuel distrust in our elections process. Taxpayer dollars will now be used to fund an office specifically designed to perpetuate and give credence to a never-ending stream of lies about our elections.
“Let’s be clear: DeSantis and his cronies are only concerned about limiting peoples’ right to vote. State lawmakers should focus instead on expanding early voting options, increasing dropbox accessibility, improving transparency, and ensuring our election operations are fully funded.”
DeSantis also took aim at vaccines: 'Florida stands for freedom'
DeSantis on Wednesday also took swipes at his most recent nemeses, President Joe Biden and Dr. Anthony Fauci, while touching on COVID-19 vaccines, masks and Big Tech.
DeSantis riled up the crowd, which appeared to be mainly supporters, out of the gate with his commitment to “step up and fight back against Biden’s mandates.”
“Florida stands for freedom. Now, it’s get three jabs or lose your job? I don’t think so,” he said, referencing the Biden administration vaccine rules.
He touted the upcoming special legislative session in Tallahassee, scheduled to begin in two weeks, and said the first order of business will be to ensure there are no vaccine or mask mandates in schools. Those comments sent the largely maskless crowd into a chant of “Protect our children.”
“That is a decision for parents to make and we’ll support their ability to do that,” DeSantis said. “We’re going to make sure this parent’s bill of rights has teeth and that parents are able to make these decisions, including, like most of Florida has done, letting children go to school without having to wear a mask for eight hours a day.”
Richard Williams, a Palm Beach County middle school teacher who attended the rally, said DeSantis' commitment to ensure neither teachers nor students will be required to wear masks is precisely what he wanted to hear.
“I’m not against someone choosing something different than me,” Williams said of masks in schools. ”I am against someone telling me that I don't have a choice because I don’t agree with their choice.”
Governor takes swipe at New York; said people are fleeing for Florida
While touting the state’s job growth and increasing population, DeSantis credited Florida’s roads, schools and infrastructure for being better than those in New York.
“People are voting with their feet,” he said of people he said are “fleeing” other states for Florida because of COVID “lockdowns” and “riots.”
Along with taking a swipe at “Zuckerbucks” — a derisive Republican term for money donated by non-profits to elections offices — he reiterated his commitment to fighting Big Tech, saying tech companies used censorship to interfere in the 2020 elections and to censor "the truth" about COVID.
"We're in litigation with Big Tech," he said, apparently referencing the lawsuit two technology groups filed in Florida challenging a bill DeSantis signed that he said is aimed at cracking down on social media censorship.
"I actually believe that if you want free society you can't have a handful of companies in Silicon Valley control the speech that's allowed in this country," he said.
DeSantis closed his 15-minute rally with one final strike at Fauci, Biden's chief medical advisor, whom he said “funded Wuhan Labs.”
While the truth about the extent and purpose of alleged federal funding to the Chinese lab is the subject of ongoing investigations, the comment drew supportive boos and cheers from the crowd.
“Recession is when your neighbor loses his job, depression is when you lose yours and recovery is when Dr. Fauci loses his job,” DeSantis said.
This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: DeSantis slams Big Tech and vaccine, mask mandates at West Palm rally